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February 12, 2018 7:54 PM   Subscribe

Ulysses: Good or Bad? "This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of James Joyce’s Ulysses." [SL LitHub]

"Ulysses is constantly named by writers and readers as a life- and mind-changing novel, and frequently tops lists of best-ever books. But it’s not as universally loved as it seems. In fact, many readers—and even many big-name writers—dislike or even loathe Joyce’s masterpiece. How would I know this, you ask? Well, they said so. In the final tally of opinions, we’ve come up with a tie—11 for and 11 against—so you will have to decide for yourself how you feel. Whether or not you look at these one star Amazon reviews of the novel first is entirely your business."
posted by Celsius1414 (83 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Oh I know this one! It’s good.
posted by stinkfoot at 8:01 PM on February 12 [13 favorites]

Against But Later For:
TD: How have your feelings on “Ulysses” (1922) changed since that first reading in college?

AB: My feelings about “Ulysses” changed when I realized I could use it to my own ends in telling that story about my dad … I had been very sort of dismissive of it, like it seemed like this crazy, unreadable, elitist project. But as I found myself reading it, since I was going to attempt to write about it, I understood more of how it worked as literature … I would say that writing “Fun Home” for me redeemed all of that literature for me, that I’d been put off by for one reason or another … It was like a graduate course that I pushed myself through. I came to understand something about literature in writing that book that I had not understood from all of my English classes.

--Alison Bechdel, in The Tufts Daily
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:07 PM on February 12 [14 favorites]

The first time I read Ulysses it was for a semester long seminar devoted only to this one work. (I think we also read Portrait of the Artist as well.) It was taught by someone who’d spent a lifetime studying the book and had endless enthusiasm for the multiple layers and obscure references and it blew my young mind.

The second time I read it, it was with an amazingly beautiful nerdy woman I was desperately in love with who was my girlfriend through most of college and we read it aloud to each other one summer, typically naked after sex. For all the intellectual over-analysis and difficulty parsing, it is also viscerally laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking when read aloud with a bookish lover.

We are separated from Joyce by a century and a continent and an eternity of cultural evolution, but I believe it was meant to be an accessible pulpy novel. It also happens to be about the entirety of the human experience seen from the view of a marginalized outsider and our current intellectual distance from 1900 Dublin is what makes the work difficult to access, requiring stodgy professors to interpret, not the book itself.

posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:27 PM on February 12 [39 favorites]

Good. As someone of arguably culturally Jewish ancestry i find Bloom easy to identify with.
posted by Alensin at 8:35 PM on February 12

I've always been pretty indifferent about it. Balthazar B is how I visit Ireland.
posted by Brocktoon at 8:48 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

I am currently reading a enjoying The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, which describes Joyce's publication experiences in the context of the time: modernism, the little magazines, radicalism, the rise of obscenity laws in the 19th century. It's a very good read so far. I didn't realize it was the centennial; it's a coincidence that I picked up this book recently. I recommend it if you're interested in this kind of thing.
posted by Orlop at 8:51 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]

I've tried. I keep trying. Someday I will succeed.
posted by hippybear at 9:04 PM on February 12 [6 favorites]

I find Pynchon less opaque than I do Ulysses.
posted by hippybear at 9:05 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]

Ulysses is greatly improved if you don't try to analyze it too much and just let the words take you along with their music and rhythm. Read that way the picture forms and the humor emerges, and you laugh along and also get inside Bloom's anxiety and Deadalus' self-righteous zeal and so on. The worst thing that ever happened to my reading of it was trying to make it line up with the Odyssey. Forget about Telemachus and Circe and all that. Just let it sing.

It's a good book, although not my favorite. I think for example Anne Enright is a better novelist (if we're picking the Irish), because she has a broader range of emotional colors, and after all Ulysses is so very much a showoffy precocious romp about men (with like a dozen dick jokes). Sometimes it does seem that the emotional and psychological content take a backseat to the verbal acrobatics, and that's a flaw, for sure. It is not a perfect novel (Marilynn Robinson's Housekeeping is a perfect novel).
posted by dis_integration at 9:18 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]

By the time I was 60 pages in to it, I had a spreadsheet going of literary references, their origins & links to supporting info. I was managing a page or two a day, doing more outside reading than the actual book, then I discovered a thick “companion to Ulysses” that was essentially an annotation, minus the text, & I thought “Boy, I’m really gonna learn me some literature now!” I think I made it another 2 pages, & there they sit, 9 years later.

I’ll try again if I ever get to retire before my mind goes.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:18 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]

Essentially, you can’t bootstrap literature from the middle up with Joyce. You’ve got to start with the Greeks & work your way forward from 2000 bc & have it all under your belt before you tuck into that thing.

I have, to my credit, since then, read The Odyssey, though not the Illiad, and a critical work on the Odyssey, but fuck, I have a job. I’ll be 90 before I’m literate enough to vaguely understand that thing.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:23 PM on February 12

I've tried. I keep trying. Someday I will succeed.

Let’s race!
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:25 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

Coincidentally I was just reading about the Pre-Joycean Fellowship 10 minutes ago.

I've seen both Joyce and TS Eliot held up as the dividing line, but there is definitely a moment around then where 'real' literature becomes something you study rather than something you read.

That said while I thought i'd be sympathetic to the "against" arguments in the OP but mostly I think the enthusiasm of the "for" is more persuasive. So it's still my to-read list.
posted by mark k at 9:26 PM on February 12

Let’s race!

No. Appreciation of literature is not a contest.
posted by hippybear at 9:28 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]

Essentially, you can’t bootstrap literature from the middle up with Joyce. You’ve got to start with the Greeks & work your way forward from 2000 bc & have it all under your belt before you tuck into that thing.

You really don't. Who cares if you don't get any of the thousands of references? It stands on its own.
posted by dilaudid at 9:33 PM on February 12 [13 favorites]

The first time I read Ulysses I was on painkillers and I thought it was alright.

I eventually realized that it was just prose-poetry, meant to be read by picking one randomly chosen page at bed-time before sleep.
posted by ovvl at 9:48 PM on February 12

Interesting that of those among the votes against whose works I am familiar I have a general dislike already. At least in this it affirms my tastes.

Great. Great I say. I slogged through it as a semester long humanities course in undergrad while I was dialed into the sciences for a biology degree. I returned to it years later with Anthony Burgess and Harry Blamires as guides and companions.

I've read it twice again since then and always find joy in the journey.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:16 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

I think in all of the arts the Western tradition gradually developed a ‘perfected’ set of forms and tools, and then, being what it is, looked for new ways to break free. Joyce opened up a radical new path for English literature, but it was one that no-one else had the inclination and the ability to follow. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that most modern novels are still essentially using methods which are not radically different from those of Jane Austen. The occasional writer who attempts a Joycean work, like McBride, just lack the lyrical and imaginative power that the task requires (YMMV).
posted by Segundus at 11:03 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

What a fucking idiot Donna Tartt is.
posted by Segundus at 11:04 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

I suspect everyone who has read Ulysses has opinions about how best to read it. In case this thread encourages someone to try it, my feeling is it doesn't hurt to read a 3-5 sentence summary of a chapter to get oriented to the situation before, during, or after reading that chapter. Each new chapter can shift focus and style pretty significantly, and there's still plenty to enjoy about that even if you know what's going to happen in the short-term. Consulting a single row from the Gilbert schema in the same way gives plenty of access to the unfolding structure. If you feel compelled to understand the context, something like a 12 minute video on the Odyssey or a short article on Irish history could be fun, but at that point you're off looking at things because you want to, not because you need them to understand Ulysses as a portrait of modernity. One theme you could extract from the novel is that cultural references/resonances are endless, and as a practical matter, you have to draw the line somewhere in following up on them. If you draw the line at page one, that's fine, but the book definitely does not require a 700 page list of annotations or whatnot to appreciate.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:09 PM on February 12 [6 favorites]

That was very satisfying. I disagree with all the votes against, though I really enjoyed V.Wolfe and R.Ford’s takes. At the same time I kind of also disagreed with all the For’s as well. I kind of feel like Slarty Bartfast has it right - the book is a thing that is out there, you bring to it what you do but in the end you’re just spending time on the side of it’s mountainous-ness. So might as well enjoy it.
(Wolfe’s against was kind of fascinating because it was so rooted in a specific class mind-set, it gives a clear picture of how I can well imagine a big slice of people felt when first reading it back when it came out.)
posted by From Bklyn at 11:25 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

Great collection of texts - but so long!


(remembering a passage in pianist Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography - I think in part 1 - where he writes that he read Ulysses and 'understood it perfectly'. Which is a nice thing to happen, I guess)
posted by Namlit at 11:26 PM on February 12

Did I just read that Paulo Coelho criticised something for a lack of substance?
posted by 1head2arms2legs at 11:27 PM on February 12 [16 favorites]

I haven't read Ulysses, but it's one of those books, like Infinite Jest, that I periodically think about picking up, but the more I read people talking about why they like it the more I feel I won't.
posted by bongo_x at 12:28 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

It is one of those books for which you must first read all of english lit up to that time and then the literary journals from the first fifteen years of the twentieth century. And the bible. Forgot the bible. That book has to be pulped and bottle-fed to you or you are going to miss some things.

You don't have to be Irish. Catholic helps. Polish worked for me.

Then you must defecate in a cold outhouse and cook a kidney for breakfast. I signed up for that course. Don't feel bad if you didn't. You already know what a "uric tang" is and have experienced all of this in a better climate but nobody has so thoroughly pulled down every little bit of every convention.

What was obscene was the notion that one should be well-read and willing to take a look at life to read the book. That doesn't come across as well 100 years later. There are new books for that. Pity we can't accurately identify them.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:44 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

Opinions are divided! I enjoyed it the first time I read it and liked it even better on an incomplete second reading (I'd reached the end of 'Circe' whereupon I left my copy on a plane). Of all the great bulk of this book, the one sentence from it that, ridiculously, comes to my mind most often is the fifth one in chapter four: 'Made him feel a bit peckish.'
posted by misteraitch at 1:53 AM on February 13

Some people talk about how much they like Ulysses to show how clever they are. Some people talk about how much they hate Ulysses to show how clever they are.
posted by phooky at 2:07 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

No. Appreciation of literature is not a contest.

You'll never be a pro literater with that attitude.
posted by AlSweigart at 2:17 AM on February 13 [8 favorites]

disappointed in Nabokov, who reveals the petty soul of a schoolmaster
posted by thelonius at 2:55 AM on February 13

How many centuries of musical history and theory would you need to master before you understood everything going on in one Michael Jackson album? The idea of prerequisites for art is toxic and destroys joy.
posted by idiopath at 3:13 AM on February 13 [14 favorites]

Ulysses starts out as one thing (a reasonably conventional novel, à la Portrait or Stephen Hero) but finishes as another. There is a precise moment in Ulysses when the book begins to "advertise its own artifice". It comes in the Aeolus episode when Joyce starts to parody the portentous fiction of the likes of Henry James: "I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of the match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives." After this, Ulysses is a string of parodies of different literary styles. Indeed, Joyce said, "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description."

It is possible that this change of tone reflects the state of Joyce's mental health. Evelyn Waugh said of it: "You could watch him going mad sentence by sentence. If you read Ulysses, it’s perfectly sane for a little bit, and then it goes madder and madder."
posted by Tarn at 3:42 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

How many centuries of musical history and theory would you need to master before you understood everything going on in one Michael Jackson album?

about .5
posted by thelonius at 3:49 AM on February 13

Nonsense, it builds on scales that come from prehistoric Greek traditions (codified by Pythagoras), harmonic concepts from 18th century Austria, rhythmic systems as synthesized from various African traditions under slavery in 19th century America, poetic traditions going back to 15th century England, for a start.

And you don't have to know any of these to start enjoying it.
posted by idiopath at 4:32 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Anyone who poses the question as “Ulysses: Good or Bad?” never gets to read anything else. You’re banned. GTFO.
posted by octobersurprise at 4:33 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

just wanted to put a dent in your pedantry, sorry
posted by thelonius at 4:36 AM on February 13

No. Appreciation of literature is not a contest.

It was a joke based on the fact that I will never finish the thing.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:47 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

the secret to enjoying Ulysses or really any work of art is to avoid hearing other people talk about it first
posted by runt at 5:14 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

Here, I'll start you out:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
posted by dannyboybell at 5:19 AM on February 13

A couple of years ago, I undertook a reading project: I read Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, and Ulysses. Then, having some momentum, I went on and read Middlemarch. I've since re-read Moby Dick and Infinite Jest, but not yet Ulysses. I suspect it is a book I'd like better on a second or third read--the first time through I loved parts of it and was baffled by other parts, and past experience suggests that having an idea of where things are going and how they all fit together would make some parts less baffling.

I had very strong negative reactions to a lot of things in Infinite Jest, but, like many other works I didn't love, it has stayed vividly with me in a way that books I enjoy often don't. They often leave me with a vague sense of having enjoyed them, but little specific memory about plot or other qualities that I enjoyed. Even though I downright hated a lot of things about it, I am probably going to re-read it at some point.

In the book I'm reading about Ulysses, the author talks about how Joyce wrote in sentences or single words, which he kept in notebooks and on scratch paper stored randomly everywhere. As he used them in the book itself, he would cross them off. It wasn't until he had the offer to serialize it that he applied himself to making some kind of coherent narrative out of it it, and there's this great line at one point about how he was committed to this plan of writing a single day in exhaustive detail right up to midnight, and he'd been at it for three years and was only up to 8 a.m.
posted by Orlop at 5:21 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

I think Joyce is an incredible writer, maybe the best user of the English language since Shakespeare. And Ulysses is amazing. But I find that these big sprawling picaresque/modernist/postmodernist novels are less than the sum of their parts. I dunno; maybe if I ever managed to read it again, it would form a coherent whole in my head this time.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 5:33 AM on February 13

Like David Foster Wallace, James Joyce and Ulysses are works that I have spent more time talking ABOUT than reading FROM. I'm totally ok with this because the Literary Criticism that surrounds this work and this author are more than enough for me and my brain.

Some day...
posted by Fizz at 5:41 AM on February 13

Last time I tackled Ulysses, I got about halfway through.

One day, I'll finish it. I mean, I managed to read Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow, I can make it through Ulysses. One day.
posted by SansPoint at 6:45 AM on February 13

This may help.

Pitch 'n Putt with Joyce 'n Beckett

posted by Homemade Interossiter at 6:52 AM on February 13

SMBC chimes in (but it's the Wake, not Ulysses):
posted by stonepharisee at 6:57 AM on February 13

The idea of prerequisites for art is toxic and destroys joy.

This. I really enjoyed Ulysses even though I had no idea how densely packed it was with references. Sorta how I engaged with "The Far Side" a decade before I tackled Joyce - half the time I could tell that it was something the author found funny, so even if I didn't get it I knew there was something to get. I ended up re-reading bits of it just for the fun of that.

There's no accounting for taste, but Ulysses is one of those things like chess; justifiably well-regarded, but tainted by people who take it too damn seriously.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:23 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

The Far Side is a great comparison (Monty Python would be another) - full of goofiness and absurdity and you might catch 10% of what's going on but it's still funny and if you come back and try to figure out what it's talking about really you discover yet more jokes.
posted by idiopath at 7:30 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Taking Ulysses too seriously to own the libs.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:36 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

Guys, you're overthinking this! The question is simple: Ulysses -- Good or Bad? PICK ONE. GOOD! BAD! DECIDE! NOW!
posted by kyrademon at 7:39 AM on February 13 [6 favorites]

For me, the key to cracking Joyce was learning that his vision was poor and ever-declining during his career. My expectation of visual description was keeping me from hearing the vividness of his world. Once I understood why the visual was secondary to the sounds, I could refocus my senses.
posted by bendybendy at 7:42 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I started to read it and didn’t get very far. I wound up listening to it via a podcast that I can’t find anymore, 10 pages a time with some commentary. Not sure if I’d listen again, but now I’m listening to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, basically the same way.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:47 AM on February 13

The idea of prerequisites for art is toxic and destroys joy.

I think it's a rule that you have to jump on a desk and recite "O Captain, My Captain" when you state this.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:57 AM on February 13 [7 favorites]

I started to read it and didn’t get very far.
Last time I tackled Ulysses, I got about halfway through.
It was a joke based on the fact that I will never finish the thing.

the key to giant monumental hard books is to just keep going, with complete unconcern that you have no idea what you are reading - just belive that it will eventually make sense, or, if it doesn't, that's OK too

I returned to it years later with Anthony Burgess and Harry Blamires as guides and companions.
+1 to the Burgess
posted by thelonius at 8:02 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I bounced off it pretty hard when I tried to read it. I couldn't understand anything I was reading.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:24 AM on February 13

thelonius: Oh, my failures at reading Ulysses had nothing to do with the lack of sense. It had everything to do with just not thinking to pick up the dang book again and start reading. I made it through IJ and GR when I was a college student with more free time to read (and doing more reading in general, as I was an English major.)
posted by SansPoint at 8:25 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I started to read it and didn’t get very far.
Last time I tackled Ulysses, I got about halfway through.
It was a joke based on the fact that I will never finish the thing.

So, about 20 years ago now I was in Dublin, and was poking around the Joyce Museum they have there. I was one of the only people there, and the proprietor ran into me studying a mural of Ulysses somewhere in the place. He asked if I was a student or a professor, and was pleased to hear I was just a tourist. "Have ye read Ulysses, then?" he said, gesturing at it.

"I haven't....finished it," I admitted.

"Ah, it's a bit of a challenge, most people have a bit of a struggle their first time," he said.

"Yeah, but....I've tried four times and still haven't gotten through."

He laughed. "Ah, darlin', you're grand - it took me twelve tries!"

I later found out that the guy was one of Joyce's own nephews. So if he was family and still had trouble, I was to be absolved. (Actually, the visit to the Joyce Center helped; I learned that the specific date Joyce was commemorating was the day of his first date with his wife Nora, and that he'd sprinkled a lot of "in jokes" throughout the book. It let me just write off things I didn't understand later as 'Oh, that must have just been an in joke" and I would just get over it and move on.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:27 AM on February 13 [7 favorites]

My first try at IJ decayed into randomly reading the end notes
posted by thelonius at 8:39 AM on February 13

I read Ulysses as a sophomore undergrad in a Joyce seminar, and I "understood" (whatever that means) very little of it, but was utterly ENRAPTURED by all of it. I determined by the second week of the course that I was going to major in English, and I was going to be a modernist, and I was going to devote EVERYTHING to figuring out the strange and often disturbing beauty of Joyce and Eliot and Beckett and their ilk. I spent a summer abroad in Oxford, and made a solo weekend trip to Dublin, and took a train out to Sandycove and gleefully traipsed about the Martello tower (muttering to myself about stately, plum Buck Mulligan) and the 50-foot bathing place, and visited all the Joycean Dublin landmarks. It was a lark, and an absolute thrill, and made me feel connected to the book in an excruciatingly sentimental way that I've never quite shook.

There are parts of it that I still think are astonishingly, breathtakingly, beautiful. And parts of it that make me giggle like a 12-year-old. And parts of it that are so pretentious and opaque and effortful (on Joyce's part, and on the reader's) that they make me angry and frustrated and uncomfortable and annoyed. I think the process of trying, as an over-confident/under-learned teenager, to write and think coherently about something that I really didn't quite grasp, and that I knew was (at that time, and probably still now) out of my depths, and that I knew exposed me and my ignorances in a very intentional way made me a MUCH more attentive reader, and a much more generous thinker, and a much more vulnerable writer...all of which I think are good things, and have served me well.

I don't know if I would still be as rapt by Joyce's razzle-dazzle now as I was then. I imagine there are still phrases and clauses and images that would take my breath away ("The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit"). I imagine some of the magic of the first encounter with something huge and ambitious and beyond me would be gone, but I'm sure there is new magic there to discover (and new frustrations and pretentions, too) if I were to read it again now.

As for my ambitions of becoming a Joycean, those were dashed almost as instantly as they'd been ignited when I took a Donne seminar two semesters later. From that moment on, it was all early modern, all the time. Now my intellectual world is filled not with brooding Stephen Dedalus (though I do to this day retain a cat with that very name from my brief fling with modernism) and scintillating Molly Bloom, but with country parsons, and the Dean of St. Paul's, and no end of obscurity and complexity and brain-twisting beauty.

I'm still entirely and completely out of my depth, but I feel pretty at home there now, so I feel like Joyce taught me well.
posted by Dorinda at 8:49 AM on February 13 [11 favorites]

thelonius: Well, the end-notes are essential if you want to understand what the bloody hell is happening in IJ.

I think what helped me get through IJ on my first go was that I'd had a gentler introduction to DFW's fiction by way of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
posted by SansPoint at 8:51 AM on February 13

I fell hard for Ulysses my junior year of college. Though I've never reread it in its entirety, one thing I love about it is how casually it melds high and low culture. Jumping from Aquinas and Aristotle to snatches of music hall songs and newspaper ads. Pastiche out the wazoo. Just a really fun book that also happened to rewrite the rules for English-language literature. May need to dip in again before Bloomsday...
posted by the sobsister at 9:30 AM on February 13

For all those who never made it to the end: skip to the end and read Molly.

My Irish Molly. O!
posted by AillilUpATree at 9:46 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

> octobersurprise:
"I think it's a rule that you have to jump on a desk and recite "O Captain, My Captain" when you state this."

On reading the article, I think we can update that to "O Franzen, My Franzen!"
posted by chavenet at 10:15 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

I think a general suggestion is: if [when] it starts to get tedious, you can just skip to the next chapter. It’ll be different, in setting or style or both. You don’t have to read all those lists.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:16 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I read Ulysses as a student, and really enjoyed it despite only understanding at most a tenth of it. I read it again in my early 40s and it upset me in a way that I completely failed to anticipate. I still admired the writing, but I guess once you older and quietly middle aged it's hard not to feel rather Bloom-like, and seeing it all set out on the page was too much to take.

I'd still rate it as a novel, but I'd put Dubliners at the top of the Joyce You Should Read list. Less challenging and stylistically inventive - and hence more accessible - but more about what it is to be human and so, so powerful in what we see of the characters' lives.
posted by YoungStencil at 10:32 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

Ulysses is a marvelous, dirty and often rather silly book that I love more than just about anything except for fancy cheese, sex, cats and, like, lazing around coastal Italy (maybe not in that order, maybe not at the same time). It's not for everyone and that's fine. That it has a reputation as A Thing You Must Read and Understand Fully to Be Considered a Proper Intellectual is a real damn shame, because I almost feel like it would be better appreciated if it was just the kind of naughty, weirdo book with the broken spine and the perplexing cover art you picked up in the secondhand book shop and tried to suss out casually over a couple of beers like, Really pulling out all the word tricks for that dick joke, aren't you, Jimmy?
posted by thivaia at 11:31 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm firmly in the "don't stress the references too much the first time" camp. I do recommend some brief summary of each chapter, though. I think the one the prof gave us in college was from Burgess's "Re: Joyce" book.

I struggled with the first three chapters because I hadn't read A Portrait of the Artist... so I didn't grok who Stephen Dedalus was at first, and the book tosses you pretty quickly into his over-educated mind. To anyone trying to read the book, I would say if chapter three ("Ineluctable modality of the visible...") gives you a massive headache, go on and skip ahead. Do come back to it another time, though.

The only other chapter that I think poses a possible problem is the "Oxen of the Sun" - in the maternity hospital. In fact my college prof told us to just skim through it, as he found it one of the least successful parts of the book. But nonetheless you have to admire the hell out of what Joyce was doing there - each paragraph is a pastiche of a particular time period or writer in the development of English language writing, from ancient Anglo-Saxon chronicles to Joyce's present day and into a kind of imagined future. Amazing idea, but yeah, it makes for some sloggy reading.

On the other hand, the pub scene, I mean... if that doesn't have you howling with laughter, then I don't know how to help you. The canine "society pages!" The tree "wedding!" Elijah!
posted by dnash at 11:58 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I'd put Dubliners at the top of the Joyce You Should Read list.

I read The Dubliners in my mid-20's, & loved it. I should re-visit that some day. I have this life problem that keeps getting in the way of books. I think I only managed six or seven books last year, which is a sad statistic. I did recently re-read the last 4 or 5 chapters of Cat's Cradle because I wanted to crack wise on Twitter, but couldn't remember the details of the comment I wanted to make, & got sucked in, trying to find a passage. I've not kept my promise to myself to re-read Dog Years every year for about 10 years now, & that makes me sad. Stupid life!
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:58 AM on February 13

(Also, re: the post title. I started using "shite and onions!" as an exclamation after reading Joyce in college. )
posted by dnash at 12:01 PM on February 13

I love it but I have mostly dipped into it, except for the time I listened to a full-cast recording while driving back and forth across country. That was amazing. I came to appreciate it more when I could really read Homer and Vergil in the originals because I could understand the challenge of creating an epic in writing, as an individual. It blows my mind that anyone can do it at all, so I would be impressed by Ulysses even if I didn't find it hugely fascinating and entertaining.
posted by BibiRose at 12:18 PM on February 13

hippybear: I've tried. I keep trying. Someday I will succeed.

Last time I tried, I added a bit of booze to my reading sessions, and it loosened things up for me in a helpful way. So next time, definitely going to use a pint or a splash as my warm-up again.

(Still didn't make it even a third of the way through the book, though.)
posted by wenestvedt at 12:36 PM on February 13

This. I really enjoyed Ulysses even though I had no idea how densely packed it was with references.

I recently read Under the Volcano which is a more straightforward book but which was influenced by Ulysses and has a lot of allusions. When I was about two-thirds of the way through I found this and considered looking at it for the remaining chapters. And then I thought - "nah, I'm just going to keep looking up the things I know I don't know, those bits were put there to be discovered." I guess pre-web-search this didn't used to work the same way, though. Now you can kinda treat all text as hypertext.
posted by atoxyl at 12:40 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]

It is good and bad. It is neither.

Is a mountain good or bad? Why did you climb it?
posted by lumpenprole at 1:46 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Man I respect Donna Tartt a heck of a lot and I kind of wish I hadn't know she had that opinion.

Also, I have Ulysses on my shelf eyeing me for my second try; what is the word on the worthwhileness of Finnegan's Wake? I have Joseph Campbell's A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake, which makes me think that it might be doable.
posted by angrycat at 3:12 PM on February 13

I find Pynchon less opaque than I do Ulysses.
posted by hippybear at 9:05 PM on February 12
[3 favorites +] [!]

Joyce is better though
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 3:46 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]

How many centuries of musical history and theory would you need to master before you understood everything going on in one Michael Jackson album? The idea of prerequisites for art is toxic and destroys joy.

I don't think music is a great comparison, because harmonic function is syntactic and its qualitative content is immediate to anyone that's been raised listening to Western music. With something like Ulysses, though, a lot of the content is (for someone not that well versed in the referents, like me) locked away behind the extreme allusiveness. I don't think that it's reading it wrong to value it for its other virtues (if I end up reading Ulysses it'll be in that sense, because I'm not really interested in chasing down a bunch of allusions outside of the holistic context that someone like Joyce would have absorbed them in), but I guess as someone who values art primarily as a special type of communication channel I won't ever be able to completely dismiss the rock in my shoe of knowing that there are huge swaths of the work that the author intended to get across that I'm effectively unable to to perceive (please no interpretive fallacy derails). It's the same feeling I get listening to a song in another language: it's worth it for the enjoyment of experiencing the parts that are accessible to me, but I can't help but feel bittersweet about the parts of it that aren't connecting and that are clearly important to the gestalt.
posted by invitapriore at 5:11 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]

what is the word on the worthwhileness of Finnegan's Wake? I

posted by thelonius at 5:47 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]

Perhaps I'm especially dense, but I usually miss things, and it rarely occurrs to me that I might have understood everything an author meant. It seems like a strange goal driven by pedagogy that has no place in my practice of reading. I often read the challenge myself, but not as some proof or trophy of my intelligence. In fact a Joyce book on the contrary makes me feel humble (as opposed to an airport novel which makes it all too easy to feel superior, like I'm smarter than or at least as smart as the author).
posted by idiopath at 5:51 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Of course I don’t expect to catch everything, especially since I miss a lot too, and I know from the other end that I make creative choices all the time that I would be ecstatic to see someone pick up on while knowing that they’re probably too embedded in my own experience to be apparent. Still, though, if I write something, I’m happier the more of it comes across to anyone who’s engaging with it, and conversely I can’t help but feel a little sense of loss when there’s obviously a large amount of the text going over my head. It’s not really about conquering something difficult, but just wanting to see the picture in the author’s head in as close as possible to the resolution they saw it in.
posted by invitapriore at 6:25 PM on February 13

Consider the stories shared in this thread, that Joyce cobbled things together with glue and scissors - which to me would indicate there were some shenanigans between head and page. I don't want to try to convince anyone to read something they won't enjoy, but if the grounds are that the author has a specific vision that's escaping you, if argue that shouldn't be enough in its own to stop you.

Don't read if you find nothing in it to enjoy, by all means, but I think Joyce rewards a immersed and delerious style of reading, one that gets caught up in the sounds but might lose some of the logic.
posted by idiopath at 7:01 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]

I think we are agreeing furiously. I certainly wouldn’t be turned away from interacting with a work on the basis of the reservations I named above, especially considering the cornucopia of sound and sense that Joyce offers (from my experience with Dubliners). I’m a sucker for delirious epics anyway, considering how much I love The Dream Songs in spite of being in a similar position with respect to all of Berryman’s allusions in that cycle.
posted by invitapriore at 7:23 PM on February 13

Angrycat - read FW out loud. You have to hear it spoken. But don't worry about pronunciation that much. Your ears will tune it in. There are loads of books that try to explain it. Campbell's was the first. It's ok as a way to get in. Roland McHugh's Annotations to FW is a page by page word by word reference of last or sometimes first resort. But don't get too hung up reading simultaneous commentaries. It's too much juggling of books. Best of all, read it with a group of people. With food and drink. A few pages a week. To get you started, Mary Ellen Bute made a film of the book based on a play based on the book. It's quite good. The soundtrack record I found in a local library in my youth got me hooked on the sound of the text. This book has been a lifelong companion. I've been through it three times. I need to float down the river Liffey again soon.
posted by njohnson23 at 7:27 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]

FW is also the best collection of multi-language puns I've read.

But nonetheless you have to admire the hell out of what Joyce was doing there - each paragraph is a pastiche of a particular time period or writer in the development of English language writing, from ancient Anglo-Saxon chronicles to Joyce's present day and into a kind of imagined future

The first time I read Ulysses it was in the fantastic Greek translation that replicates this feat with ancient Greek, koine, Byzantine etc. Traduttore Salvatore
posted by ersatz at 11:34 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]

FW is also the best collection of multi-language puns I've read.

Some years back there was a minor flurry of news about a guy who was the first to successfully translate Ulysses into Mandarin Chinese. This was something of a difficult task, and there were a handful of different articles about the guy, all of them explaining that the puns and the stream-of-consciousness were extremely difficult to translate in such a way that Mandarin readers would even get some of the flavor of Joyce's wordplay.

Nearly all the articles ended the same way, though - with a variant of the following conversation:

Journalist: So, I guess you'll be doing Finnegan's Wake next, right?
Translator: Oh HELL no, are you kidding?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:35 AM on February 14

Some of Finnegans Wake has been translated into Chinese already: see here.

I read Ulysses for the first time as a precious sixth former and found it mind-blowing, but for that reason think of it, perhaps unfairly, as a book for precocious students and the like rather than one that lots of people straightforwardly love. Because no one really reads it without taking some sort of account of the cultural cachet of having read it. Which is kind of sad when one of the big things the book is saying is how extraordinary so-called ordinary life is when you look at it really closely, and how much interest and complication there is in the kind of cultural life and cultural productions that don't carry much cachet.
posted by Mocata at 5:22 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]

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